Almost every professional has been there: desperately wishing for more unscheduled time so we can catch up on our work, but finding a wall of endless meetings and commitments instead. And now that post-pandemic travel and office returns are picking up, our already-full calendars may feel out of control.
Many of us comforted ourselves that the bleak pandemic years enabled us to take stock and reset our priorities so they better reflected our values. But as I’ve heard in conversation after conversation with the companies I consult, those commitments are being put to the test.
If you’re beginning to fret that, once again, you’re becoming overloaded by your calendar, it’s not too late to take back control. Here’s one way: Time oases, or deliberate, ritual breaks from the crush of our calendars that allow you to reset, restore, and come back refreshed.
To create a time oasis—a concept I was introduced to by author and time management expert Dave Crenshaw—you’ll systematically build in something to look forward to as a respite during the workday, Eventually, you’ll carve out longer breaks during the year to ensure you’re rested and performing optimally. Here’s how you can reach your own oasis.
STEP ONE: FIND THE FINISH LINE
Oases begin with boundaries. For all of us working with laptops and smartphones, our workday never really has a clear endpoint; the work just follows you home, haunting you in between commercial breaks and before you go to bed. That’s why if you’re searching for oases, you need to first establish better boundaries.
But as experts advocate, your boundary-setting works better when it’s incremental. Just consider the idea of micro-habits, or small adjustments to your routine that move you towards being equipped for oasis. For example, if you’re working long hours now, don’t try to stop immediately. Instead, like resetting your circadian rhythms in advance of an overseas trip, gently and consistently retrain yourself over time.
For instance, if you’re working until 8 pm every night, spend a week with a firm stopping point of 7:45 pm, and then roll back to 7:30 pm the next week. (The good news is that once you create a habit, it can become a powerful force. Experts estimate that nearly half of our daily actions are enacted habitually.)
⚠️ The caution ahead: If you have a particularly busy week, your schedule may slip. It’s tempting to let one or two late nights derail your plan, but much like a new meditator has to keep bringing their awareness back to their breath, push yourself to refocus and stop work at your identified time as soon as it’s feasible.
As Crenshaw notes, getting used to reduced time actually forces us to become more efficient. If Parkinson’s Law dictates that tasks will expand to fill the time allocated for them, tightening your availability means you have to get smarter about what you work on and how you do it. As a result, Crenshaw says, “you have to start making choices. Either I’m going to start saying no to things that are low-value, or I’m going to have to start developing systems.”
STEP TWO: MAKE WAY FOR OASIS
Next, you’re ready to test a time oasis. Crenshaw, for instance, takes a ritual break during the middle of each workday to watch a short comedy video. Having the opportunity to relax and laugh gives him perspective—even if he’s under a lot of pressure, or if the day hasn’t been going well, there’s a wider world and other things he can enjoy.
Whether it’s a few daily minutes to watch videos, a weekly half-hour to sit in the steam room and think, or a three-day weekend every quarter, carving out ritual time for a break from your usual routine can make a meaningful difference in your ability to recognize that life doesn’t always have to be both sprint and marathon.
⚠️ The caution ahead: These types of systemic changes often take their own time to implement and adopt. Don’t get discouraged if you’re not able to commit to your respite right away. You’ll make it to oasis, and once it’s there, its impact can be profound.
Crucially, says Crenshaw, creating an oasis also forces you to ask important strategic questions like, “What must I do to make this happen?” If the idea of taking a three-day weekend seems impossible, it might imply you need to hire part-time support to help better handle the volume of your work, or delegate more mindfully to your employees so you’re not needed on a 24/7 basis. “When you start asking [strategic questions], it improves your manner of thinking,” he says, “and you start to become more effective in your career.”
STEP THREE: BUILD BIGGER SANCTUARIES
It’s time to scale. Oases shouldn’t be confined to just our daily and weekly schedules. Once you’ve mastered a regular cadence of short oases, consider going long.
America—mortifyingly to our well-rested European counterparts—has historically been the land of “two weeks off per year.” Even then, one recent study finds that at the end of 2021, Americans still had 9.5 unused vacation days. But not Crenshaw, who manages to take off two full months in July and December each year. He thinks of this as a way of creating restorative oases throughout his year, just as he does during his workweek.
⚠️ The caution ahead: One potential obstacle for many people is an oasis’s logistics. Too many people think, “It’d be great to take next month off!” and then realize they’ve already locked in commitments they can’t change. The key is to plan your time off well in advance so you can work around scheduling issues.
Crenshaw suggests planning a longer oasis at least 3-4 months before you head there. When I decided to experiment with taking my own month off, I actually notified clients nearly a year in advance that I’d be unavailable and suggested coverage options, because I was working on ongoing retainer contracts and didn’t want to leave anyone in the lurch.
An even bigger challenge in taking longer vacations may be our own psychology. We often claim we’d like to have a calmer schedule, but repeatedly make choices that lead us in the opposite direction because our society equates busyness with success. In that way, being busy gives us important (but illusory) emotional benefits. As Crenshaw notes, taking a bigger break is a powerful forcing function that will make us better. You have to realize, he says, that “If I do this, I’ll make more money. I’ll increase the value of my time.”
TRAINED TO SUSTAIN
These days, almost all of us are too busy—and just looking at our calendars can inspire dread. But it doesn’t have to be that way. By making conscious choices, we can make room for what’s most important and create oases that will sustain us, even when there’s a lot we’re striving to accomplish.
MORE STORIES FOR TIME-TESTING
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💡 When it comes to being successful, time management is more important than having great ideas
🚧 How to set better boundaries at work
🔎 Time-management tips from the productivity expert who trains Google executives
YOU GOT THE MEMO
Send questions, comments, and stories of time-tackling to email@example.com. This edition of The Memo was written by Dorie Clark and edited by Gabriela Riccardi.